Bass in the ‘Burbs

A streetwise fishing quest amid the sprawling city scape of Orlando.

User Submitted Photo : Christina catches a nice bass in an urban lake.

Sure, I realize that for a satisfying, soul-cleansing angling experience, you can head for the wilderness.

But for ridiculously good fishing that is the fisherman’s version of discovering pirate treasure, look for some incidental effects of civilization: sometimes structure, sometimes water flow machinery, sometimes just good old junk.

The possibilities are as varied as the human ability to alter our environment. If aesthetics rates well below results on your fishing priority scale, the quest for the real jackpot may start at your back door. But your wildest fishing dream may not stack up to the reality of a lake I found in downtown Orlando.

As a 12-year-old in ’62 Orlando, I mostly fished four nearby lakes. Equipped with the normal fascination with any tap transmitted from an artificial worm, the focus of my universe diminished to the end of my line that I might avert the disaster of never seeing the mystery tugger. All my modest skills enlisted in this emergency. But familiarity breeds contempt and that was about to change.

I never had tried Lake Lucerne. Long ago it may have honored its clear Swiss namesake. Old photographs show a round lake dotted with white sails and people fishing. By my advent it had Orange Avenue through its middle, the ugliest water in a town of distinctly urban water and NO FISHING signs. An older kid I sometimes fished with told me he went there one night and snatched bass, blind casting a treble hook.

Next dawn found my bike hidden behind a garbage can and me huddled in a concrete culvert crawling a black worm through surface scum over the 12-foot-wide aquaduct leading into the open lake, my former concept of “possible” shattered. The sight of me riding back home nearly caused a couple traffic accidents. Or maybe it was the nine bass averaging three pounds on my stringer.

Two spots were paranormal. At the culvert I could cast a worm from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. on a summer night and never go strikeless. It was impossible to drag it through that grey-green soup unmolested and difficult not to land a bass when every tossed worm was inhaled by a new challenger. You could even hear them splashing back under the road. The usual size was three pounds and the maximum was four. They were the stoutest, strongest bass I’ve ever seen, sporting a distinct hump of muscle atop their heads as if it simply had no place else to grow; possibly a result of the vast populations of shad, shiners and bluegills also crammed in there. It became my fishing lab, an opportunity to test techniques on bass. Since missed strikes no longer mattered, I would play with the fish, hold the line tight to see if they would hang on, maybe hook themselves; test the percentages of letting them run compared to setting the hook immediately; correlate that with type of strike. Since the water was opaque, my imagination simply had to run riot.

Across the street from the Orlando Utilities building lay a city block of shoreline distinguished by gaseous bubbling. Here the action was almost constant but less amazing because the area was greater. And they were less picky. Bass and big specks would alternate on tandem spinners.

What civilization gives it can take away. After about a decade, the unwanted East-West Expressway stomped through the bubble stretch and the fill was dumped in the culvert. The unique circumstances were changed and the bonanza ended.

Losing Fishing Nirvana sends you on a quest for another one because you know it’s possible. These days, though, give me aesthetics over results. My favorite lake is remote, unspoiled and not particularly fishy; and that’s just how I like it. Jack, apparently ruined by Lake Lucerne, will fish all day in a latrine if that’s where they’re biting. He recently took me on a tour of urban discovery and reminded me that catching lots of fish can be lots of fun—no matter what you’re looking at.

Central Orlando has about sixty real lakes. New opportunities abound in this land of trashed water and overcrowding. On the perimeter, urban sprawl contributes roadside swales, golf course ponds, ditches and all manner of puddles from drained wetlands, each of which has its own unique characteristics.

We began our 2000 Streetwise Fishing Quest in an appropriately bizarre manner: fly fishing a swale in a place called Dr. Philips for Russian amurs. The question in our minds as we drove there: “Will they rise naturally to our black gnats or must we send Wonderbread upon the waters and afix breadballs?” When we arrived, the St. Augustine grass was dotted with magnolia petals. The stiff wind blew one onto the pond, where it floated like a fairy gondola until a large fish sucked it in.

“Match the hatch,” Jack shrugged.

“Put the petal to the metal,” I counterpunched.

Jack’s son Scott, eager for his first Russian fish, tied on a white popper.

“Don’t be Russian into anything,” Jack cautioned him.

“Please don’t start that,” he moaned sincerely.

“Go easy on the kid,” I said. “It’s his Amurica too.”

Jack gave his gnat a ride in a flower boat as Scott placed his popper in a medium oak tree behind him. I tossed a plain gnat to a squadron of five baby-tarponesque shadows and immediately hooked up with a 4-inch bluegill. A long shadow nudged Jack’s stealth lure but judged it overweight and turned away. This remained the pattern as our thoughts all turned to Wonderbread. Suddenly the boy yelled, “I’ve got one!” His limber rod bent like a Hula Hoop and the battle was on.

A car door shut nearby and a stout man inside a University of Michigan sweatshirt approached us.

“What’s he got?” he asked Jack.

“Nothing particular,” Jack said. “He’s just old.”

“I mean the kid. What’s on his line?”

“Oh, that. It’s a triploid grass carp.”

The man grunted his understanding and stood back to view the proceedings.

Scott got his fish and with a little chumming we all landed the biggest shiners of our lives, around five pounds.

It was getting late. “I’ve got my cast net,” I said. “Let’s get something to eat.”

Aficionados of the cast net and treble hook could have no greater ally than the State of Florida, which brought us the vegetarian tilapia. This import maintains a remarkably high fish-per-acre rate, thrives in degraded water and scoops bomb crater beds in the same place and season as bass would like to, creating a hazard to waders. They are fine fare and a great boon to the expeditious urban fisherman. We headed for Lake Weldona, packed with tilapia that often feed on terrestrial grass at the water’s edge. When we got there, the shallow lake was gone, replaced by pumps, hoses, a steam shovel and a mountain of bottom muck.

“The city took your lake,” Jack noted.

He then suggested bass fishing around the I-4 pilings at Lake Ivanhoe.

“Bass? Been there done that. Aren’t there any new exotics?”

Jack twirled his moustache. “You never know till you try.”

We drove across town and parked under the overpass. As the sun began to hide behind an upscale condominium, bathing the concrete pillars of transportation in alpenglow, I was distracted by the shimmering gasoline rainbow at my feet. All business, Jack tossed his latest love, a plastic jerkbait, as Scott and I opted for artificial worms.

“You know, you can’t eat bass anymore,” I pointed out.

“Everything’s got something wrong with it,” Scott added positively.

Jack’s countenance became wistful. “The world isn’t what it’s supposed to be anymore.”

“Never was,” I said, hooking something very heavy, probably a shopping cart. “We just didn’t have anything to compare it with before.”

Jack got a small bass, then we tried one of his old favorite storm drains at Ivanhoe’s mate, Rowena, and Scott caught a decent bass there on worm.

“Got to keep up with the times,” I told Jack as we drove under cover of darkness to an urban sprawl golf course. “The key to city fishing is finding new things before anybody else does.”

“The trouble with golfers,” Jack said as he churned a buzzbait along the shore, “is they bring the wrong kind of poles out here.”

“They like the dry spots,” I noted, missing a light hit on my Hula popper.

Buzzbait carried the night as we went over par on several holes with bass running one to two pounds.

Thus encouraged we set our sights on hotel ponds and any other water that looked like it ought to be somewhere else.

Next evening, heading for the western Orlando urban sprawl, we stopped at Shingle Creek, a lovely stream where it joins Lake Tohopokeliga, here a storm-drain-embattled ditch through industrial parks. We’ve always known it as S.O.S. Creek, for those familiar with cream chipped beef on toast.

Forging through styrofoam cups, beer cans and weeds we found tilapia at home in the 10-foot-wide mockery of what once was. For irony we fly fished it and came up regularly with small bluegills, pretty green sunfish and a little bass, amazing us with nature’s tenacity.

“Hey. We’re still here too,” Jack noted.

Hotel ponds varied widely in their quality as fisheries. Fountains are the obvious casting target but they never really produced. Around lily pads at a Downtown Disney pond I caught bruiser bluegills on popper and a 7-pound bass on Limper spoon. And then we found it.

Tucked away out of sight, not easy to get to, rarely or never fished, un-“developed” though in the city—El Dorado. We waded through thick hydrilla, firmly believing this lake could not live up to its promise, and with our first casts it started. Working jerkbaits over open pockets, my partners got immediate surface explosions followed by my rapidly retrieved Skippin’ Cisco getting smashed along a weedline. Jack and I landed 5-pound bass and Scott lost his in some hydrilla, by all appearances substantially larger. As we waded the weedline, it continued pretty much like that. Then around sunset, returning through already fished water, they really started biting.

“It’s Lake Lucerne but bigger fish,” Jack yelled joyously.

“And with normal water. It seems weird.”

“Must be the hydrilla effect,” Jack theorized.

We have a miracle spot again, although as I write this I can’t recall the name or give you directions.

Still I had to go back one night and check on the original, untried for years. The culvert—still dead. The bubble stretch now the expressway—no bubbles, no strikes; but there was an odd patch of ten rough-looking lily pads just sitting way out there alone. I cast to the edge and brought the worm along. Tap! Tap! Oddly enough my universe shrank instantly and I found myself desperate to see this tugger. I set the hook, the rod bowed deeply and the fish bored for the pads. I backed it away and a 2-pound bass shot out of the still-nasty water. On shore I admired the urban specimen. It lacked the old head hump but was as perfect and beautiful as a bass can be.

Kind of like a memory. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Oct. 2000

  • In a cent…..

    I grew up in downtown orlando, lake Lawsona was my favorite. I caught hundreds of bass from that nasty lake, good catfish population too. I once saw an 11lb largemouth come out of that lake….caught on a beetle spin!!!